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Victorian prisons and punishments

Criminal law
One topic which touched most citizens was the criminal law. In 1811 there had been a brutal multiple
murder in the east end of London, which brought about a debate about policing. Until then the law
had been enforced, with varying degrees of efficiency, by unpaid constables and watchmen
appointed by each parish. London began to be seen as the haunt of violent, unpunished criminals,

The Metropolitan Police

At last, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police force was established, their headquarters in Scotland Yard,
just off Whitehall. Their uniform made them look more like parkkeepers than soldiers, to allay the
fears of those who feared law enforcement by a centrally controlled military such as existed on the
continent. They walked their beats in top hats and blue swallowtailed coats, armed only with
truncheons. It took several years for them to be popularly accepted; some people looked back with
regret to the old days of corruption and inefficiency. But even the City of London agreed, after initial
resistance, to remodel its own police force on New Police lines.
The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 gave them wide powers. Small boys could be arrested for
bowling hoops or knocking on doors, street musicians could be arrested just for playing. But London
became a safer and quieter place. In 1869 their powers were extended to allow them to raid brothels
and similar dens of vice.
In 1851 opponents of the Great Exhibition gloomily foretold that it would attract criminals, assassins
and revolutionaries from all over Europe. In the event, the law enforcement officers greatly
outnumbered the criminals. Only 12 pickpockets were arrested, foreign visitors were astounded to
see the Queen walking calmly through the crowds without a military escort, and several of the
foreign detectives who had crossed the Channel to watch for suspected foreign criminals went to
watch for them on English race courses, instead.
By 1860 boroughs and counties outside London had their own police forces. They were still locally
organised, because of the inbuilt English resistance to the idea of a central force such as existed on
the Continent, but they were partly funded by grants from the central government.

Criminal trials
Few trials lasted longer than two days. Public interest, stirred up by the popular newspapers, could
be intense. Tickets were issued to those who knew the right people, such as diplomats and
fashionable ladies, but even so the court room could be so crowded that the ticketholders had to
share the dock with the accused.

The prisons
In the previous century Jeremy Bentham had dreamt up a novel idea for a prison construction: a
'Panopticon', built in a star shape with radiating wings, so that daylight and fresh air reached every
cell and, more importantly, the warders could oversee every wing from a central core. They were
certainly an improvement on the old medieval prisons.
Every prisoner had a cell to himself, with adequate washing facilities, which presentday inmates of
overcrowded prisons might envy. But they would not envy the prison regime, known as the separate
system. It involved depriving a prisoner of all human contact; shutting him up in his cell except for
brief exercise periods, masking his face, and forbidding him to speak. This compulsory silence
was believed to lead to moral regeneration as the wretched prisoner contemplated his moral failings.
There were, it had to be admitted, quite a few suicides.

The huge number of capital offences with which the reign began had been pruned to only two,
murder and treason, by 1861. When death was no longer the inevitable sentence for minor crimes,
what was to be done with the prisoners? The colonies came in useful here. The main receiving
territory was Australia: an average of 460 convicts were sent there each year, but some were sent to
Gibraltar, or feverridden Bermuda. In 1853 the colonies refused to accept England's convicts any
longer, and sentences were converted to hard labour in English prisons instead.

Executions were still public. Thomas Cook ran excursion trains to promising executions. 30,000
people watched the hanging of a notorious pair of murderers, in 1849, including Charles Dickens,
who watched from the roof of a house overlooking the gallows. He then famously sent a letter to the
Times, condemning public executions and their use as popular entertainment. It took another 20
years before hangings would be conducted within prison walls.

The common law

England was proud of its individuality. Napoleon had imposed a codified system of law throughout
his continental Empire, based on Roman law. In theory any citizen anywhere in his domain could
consult a written source and see where he stood. Of course it was not so easy as that, and the legal
profession continued to make a good living, interpreting the law to nonlawyers. England never
accepted Roman law. The English preferred their own system of common law, which was, they felt,
appropriate to the rugged English character. It relied on what judges had decided in previous cases
on the same point of principle, which was not always easy to identify.

When a woman married, all that she owned, and anything she earned after the marriage, became the
property of her husband. Divorce could be obtained only by a private Act of Parliament, at great
expense. The situation eased slightly after the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which set up
matrimonial courts.
A husband could divorce his wife on the ground of a single act of adultery, whereas she had to prove
him guilty of other offences such as cruelty, as well as adultery, and she was very unlikely to be
granted custody of their children. The court proceedings were widely reported in the popular press.
The status of married women gradually improved; from 1870 a woman could keep 200 of her own
earnings just enough to live on, with care and from 1884 she had the same rights over property
as an unmarried woman, and could carry on a trade or business independently. Her rights to custody
of her children improved, too, but it was not until 1923 that adultery by her husband was sufficient
ground for a wife to seek divorce.

'I didnt get much hurt,' says an anonymous police constable in the
article accompanying this illustration. 'I lost my helmet and my
lantern and got my shins kicked but then were used to that'. He
describes intervening in a fight between brothers in Pearl Street
in Wapping, East London. 'No sooner did the other brother see
both my hands busy than he came straight for me with a knife. I
let go my right hand and got
at my truncheon and fetched
him one

This busy illustrated front page is a relatively restrained

example of what readers could expect from The Illustrated
Police News. The paper tended to mix accurate reporting of
criminal trials and coronerss reports with wild speculation
and gossip, but here it had clearly been caught cold. The nearsimultaneous murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes in Whitechapel shocked police,
politicians and public alike lending credence to the previously disreputable idea that there was a
multiple murderer at work in East London. This double-murder of September 1888 comprised the
fifth and six fatal knife attacks on women to occur around Whitechapel since April that year. A
sequence of similar attacks would continue till 1891 and claim eleven victims in total, with the police
generally assuming the same lone attacker was responsible. This assumption was given extra
impetus by a number of postcards received by the London Central News Agency that year claiming
responsibility for the killings. The second of these postcards was signed Jack The Ripper.

Education in Victorian Britain

In an increasingly complicated world, the chances for an illiterate boy or girl were slim. In light of
this, a number of day schools were established. These included the Ragged Schools, Parish Schools
and Church Schools.
Ragged schools originated in the Sunday School founded in 1780 by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, who
taught children to read so that they could read the Bible. Then a Portsmouth cobbler, John Pounds,
gathered groups of children to play with his disabled nephew, and by 1818 had a class of 30 or 40
who he was teaching to read, from the Bible because it was the only book easily available. The idea
spread to London. In 1844, 19 Ragged Schools joined to form a Ragged School Union, headed by Lord
Shaftesbury. By 1861 they were teaching over 40,000 children in London, including the children of
convicts, drunks and abusive stepparents, and deserted orphans and even the children of poor
Roman Catholics who do not object to their children reading the Bible. By 1870 there were 250
Ragged Schools in London and over 100 in the provinces.

The idea of apprenticeships was admirable: for a fixed term, usually seven years, a master or
mistress of a trade would train a young person so that he could earn his living at that trade. The
master kept the apprentice in board, lodging and clothes, but had no duty to pay him, although many
did in the final years of the term, when the apprentice had learned enough to be helpful. The system
applied throughout society. Prosperous merchants, goldsmiths and bankers made tidy sums from the
premiums paid by the parents of hopeful apprentices. The members of the Company of Watermen
and Lightermen of the River Thames, who had a monopoly of river traffic, had 2,140 apprentices in
1858. Poor masters could profit from the unpaid labour of children taken from the parish
workhouse. There were many scandals of parish apprentices being so illtreated that they ran away,
or even died.

Parish schools
Parish workhouses were supposed to provide education for the children in their care whom they had
not managed to apprentice out, but this duty was poorly observed. Some satisfied it by shunting
their children to the Central London District School for Pauper Children on the outskirts of London,
known as the Monster School because of its size it housed 1,000 pupils. (Charlie Chaplin was one,

Church schools
The Church of England and the nonconformist movement both provided elementary education, and
both adopted the Lancaster system whereby the brightest pupil taught what he had learned, to a
group of fellowpupils, each of whom in turn passed it on, and so on: tidy and superficially efficient
but prone to errors. Nevertheless Joseph Lancaster himself gave 1000 children some grasp of the
rudiments, reading, writing and reckoning, in this way. The system was replaced by properly
trained pupilteachers in 1846. Both establishments set up teacher training colleges, which gave
their graduates the entrance to employment as welltrained, certificated teachers.

The public schools

Only the English could call their most exclusive and expensive educational establishments public.
Winchester College was the earliest, founded in 1382. The College of St Mary at Eton followed, in
1440. There was a burst of new foundations in the 19th century, reflecting the aspirations of the
middle classes to the status symbols of the nobility and gentry. They emphasized the importance of

sportsmanship and of a brand of Christianity later called Muscular Christianity. They produced self
confident young men ready to become leaders destined for the army or the civil service, at home or
in the Empire. Scholarship came lower down in their priorities.

Education for girls

In the upper classes it was assumed that a girl would marry and that therefore she had no need of a
formal education, as long as she could look beautiful, entertain her husbands guests, and produce a
reasonable number of children. Accomplishments such as playing the piano, singing and flower
arranging were allimportant. If she could not find a husband she faced a grim future as a 'maiden
aunt' whose help could always be called on to look after her aged parents or her siblings children.
She might even be forced to take on employment as a governess, shut away in the schoolroom with
children who had little interest in absorbing the information she was teaching. This became
increasingly unattractive to intelligent women. But their future was improved when Queens College
in Harley Street, London was founded in 1848, to give governesses a recognized and marketable
qualification. No accomplishments there. Ten more years saw the foundation of Cheltenham Ladies
College. Other girls public schools followed. This increase in female education led to renewed
demands for the vote. The National Union of Womens Suffrage Societies was founded in 1897, hotly
denounced by the Queen, who from her position of unimaginable power saw no reason why women
should want to vote at all.

State intervention
The Factory Act of 1833, had imposed a duty on employers to provide halftime education for
employees under 13. In practice, the Act was easily ignored. The breakthrough came in 1870.
Elected school boards could levy a local rate to build new schools providing education up to the age
of 10. In 1880 the provision of elementary schooling for both sexes was made compulsory, and the
age raised to 13. By 1874 5,000 Board Schools were running. Another change in the law enabled
grammar schools for girls to be founded and funded. By 1898, 90 such schools had been founded

The universities
For centuries, the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge had imposed three barriers to
entrance. An applicant had to be 1: male; 2: unmarried; and 3: a member of the Church of England.
While 2 and 3 could be evaded with a little cunning, 1 could not. Nonsectarian colleges had been
opened in London from 1828 onwards, grouped into London University in 1836. Durham University
was founded in 1832, Owens College in Manchester in 1851, and Birmingham University in 1900. In
1878 London University admitted women to two colleges, Bedford College, and the Royal Holloway
College opened by Queen Victoria in 1886, which was funded by the proceeds of patent medicines.
But Oxford and Cambridge held out against women until the next century.